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Turnover rates of nitrogen stable isotopes in the salt marsh mummichog, Fundulus
heteroclitus, following a laboratory diet switch
John Logan, Heather Haas, Linda Deegan, and Emily Gaines
The Ecosystems Center
Marine Biological Laboratory
7 MBL Street
Woods Hole, MA U.S.A. 02543
J.M. Logan
The Ecosystems Center
Marine Biological Laboratory
7 MBL Street
Woods Hole, MA U.S.A. 02543
H.L. Haas
The Ecosystems Center
Marine Biological Laboratory
7 MBL Street
Woods Hole, MA U.S.A. 02543
L.A. Deegan
The Ecosystems Center
Marine Biological Laboratory
7 MBL Street
Woods Hole, MA U.S.A. 02543
E.F. Gaines
The Ecosystems Center
Marine Biological Laboratory
7 MBL Street
Woods Hole, MA U.S.A. 02543
Present address:
J.M. Logan, Zoology Department, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH U.S.A.
Email: [email protected]
Fax: 603-862-3784
H.L. Haas
National Marine Fisheries Service
166 Water Street
Woods Hole, MA U.S.A. 02543
Nitrogen stable isotopes are frequently used in ecological studies to
estimate trophic position and determine movement patterns. Knowledge of tissuespecific turnover and nitrogen discrimination for study organisms is important for
accurate interpretation of isotopic data. We measured δ15N turnover in liver and muscle
tissue in juvenile mummichogs, Fundulus heteroclitus, following a laboratory diet
switch. Liver tissue turned over significantly faster than muscle tissue suggesting the
potential for a multiple tissue stable isotope approach to study movement and trophic
position over different time scales; metabolism contributed significantly to isotopic
turnover for both liver and muscle. Nitrogen diet-tissue discrimination was estimated at
between 0.0 – 1.2 ‰ for liver and –1.0 – 0.2 ‰ for muscle. This is the first experiment
to demonstrate a significant variation in δ15N turnover between liver and muscle tissue in
a fish species.
Keywords Discrimination · Liver · Metabolism · 15N · Trophic level
Nitrogen stable isotopes provide natural markers that are increasingly used to
study food webs and movement patterns (Hobson 1999). The isotopic signatures of
organisms reflect the stable isotope ratios of their diets offset by a discrimination factor.
Discrimination represents the difference between isotope values for diet and fully
equilibrated consumer tissue (Martínez del Rio and Wolf 2004). Nitrogen, which
typically discriminates 2 to 4 ‰ (DeNiro and Epstein 1981; Minagawa and Wada 1984;
Gannes et al. 1998; Post 2002), is often used to determine trophic position (Fry and Sherr
1984; Peterson and Fry 1987). Isotopic analysis of multiple tissue types with different
turnover times can potentially be used to determine diet (Kurle and Worthy 2002) or
movement patterns (Fry et al. 2003) over a range of time scales by linking isotopic values
to specific food or habitat types.
Among ectothermic organisms, isotopic change is generally attributed to growth
rather than metabolism. Most laboratory diet-switch experiments (Hesslein et al. 1993;
Herzka and Holt 2000; MacAvoy et al. 2001; Bosley et al. 2002; Tominaga et al. 2003)
and field studies (Vander Zanden et al. 1998; Maruyama et al. 2001) show that growth is
the primary factor causing stable isotopic change in fish following a diet shift. One field
study of larval red drum has found significant metabolic turnover, and the authors suggest
that differences between larval energetic requirements in the laboratory and in the field
may account for variation between lab and field results (Herzka et al. 2001).
In endothermic organisms, isotopic turnover varies significantly among tissues in
relation to the tissue’s relative metabolic activity; turnover is faster in liver than muscle
tissue (Tieszen et al. 1983; Hobson and Clark 1992). While isotopic turnover rates in
ectotherms should theoretically also vary according to relative tissue metabolic activity,
experimental results have not been able to show significant variation amongst tissues in
ectotherms (Hesslein et al. 1993; Johnson et al. 2002).
This study uses the salt marsh mummichog, Fundulus heteroclitus, to examine
turnover rates of nitrogen stable isotopes in liver and muscle. The salt marsh
mummichog is an ecologically-important, estuarine species, which is abundant along the
east coast of North America (Robins and Ray 1986). Stable isotopes have been used to
determine the placement of mummichogs in food webs (Deegan and Garritt 1997) and
estimate habitat use (Currin et al. 2003). Knowledge of species-specific and tissuespecific turnover and nitrogen discrimination is important for accurate interpretation of
isotopic data because past studies have demonstrated variation between species (Hesslein
et al. 1993; Herzka and Holt 2000; MacAvoy et al. 2001; Bosley et al. 2002) and also
between tissues of the same species (Tieszen et al. 1983; Hobson and Clark 1992).
In this study, we estimate isotopic turnover rates of nitrogen in individual
mummichogs that have been switched from a natural diet (baseline δ15N≈ 8 ‰) to a
laboratory diet of tuna (δ15N≈ 15 ‰). The growth of each fish was tracked so that the
total isotopic change could be separated into growth and metabolic turnover, the two
components that contribute to a change in tissue isotopic values. Both liver and muscle
tissues were measured to examine turnover rates in multiple tissues of a single organism.
Materials and methods
Fish collection and husbandry
Mummichogs (n = 65) were collected from a single salt marsh creek on the
Rowley River, Plum Island estuary, Rowley, Massachusetts, USA on May 1, 2003. In
order to maximize growth rates for the experiment, the smallest abundant size class was
selected (40-51 mm). After allowing 24 hours for gut clearance, individuals were blotted
dry, weighed (g ± 0.01), measured (Total length (TL) ± 0.1 mm), and individually (n =
65) marked via subcutaneous injection of dorsal lateral bands of acrylic paint (Lotrich
and Meredith 1974) following anesthesia with seltzer water.
All individuals were transported to the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in
Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA on May 2, 2003. The initial δ15N value of liver and
muscle was determined by sacrificing five individuals. The fish were held (n = 20 per
tank) in three heated (18ºC) 75.8 liter tanks with flow through ambient seawater for up to
102 days. Box filters with carbon inserts and daily siphoning of excess food and detritus
maintained water quality under reduced flow conditions. Ground frozen tuna was fed
daily to the mummichogs ad libitum. To ensure isotopic homogeneity of the food source,
all of the tuna was homogenized, stored frozen, and thawed in aliquots prior to use.
Mummichogs (n = 2) were sampled approximately weekly to biweekly initially
when isotopic change was greatest (6, 13, 19, 23, 27, 38, 46, 56 days after diet switch),
and a final sample was collected after 102 days to estimate diet-tissue discrimination.
Fish were placed in a separate tank for 24 hours to allow gut evacuation, then were
anesthetized, measured (TL ± 0.1 mm), blotted dry, weighed (± 0.01 g), and sacrificed.
The remaining fish (n = 42) either died in captivity or were sacrificed and archived for
other studies.
Isotopic sample preparation
Liver and muscle tissue from 23 mummichogs were analyzed for δ15N. Whole
liver and dorsal white muscle were sampled from each fish. Following sacrifice, liver
and muscle tissues were quickly rinsed with deionized water and dried in glass
scintillation vials at 66ºC for at least 24 hours. Dried samples were ground to a
homogeneous powder using a mortar and pestle. Sub-samples were then weighed to the
nearest 0.001 mg and packed in tin capsules for isotopic analysis. Three samples of tuna
were removed from the homogenized food supply and dried in the same manner as the
tissue samples. Two tuna samples were soaked in deionized water for 10 to 15 minutes
prior to drying to remove dissolved components that might be released from the food
before consumption.
Sample analysis
Isotopic analyses were performed on individual liver and muscle tissue samples at
the Stable Isotope Laboratory, Marine Biological Laboratory. Measurement of δ15N was
performed using a dual-inlet Finnigan MAT Delta S isotope ratio mass spectrometer with
a Heraeus elemental analyzer - cryogenic "trapping box" preparation system. Analytical
precision was ± 0.1 ‰ ( Atmospheric nitrogen gas
was used as the standard. Stable isotope ratios are expressed as parts per thousand
differences from this standard in the following equation (Peterson and Fry 1987):
δ15N = [(Rsample/Rstandard)-1] x 103, where R is the ratio of heavy and light isotopes
in a sample, 15N/14N.
Growth rate and turnover rate estimation
An equation developed by Fry and Arnold (1982) was fitted to liver and muscle
isotope data. The Fry-Arnold equation predicts tissue isotopic signature as a function of
y = a + b*MRc , where y = δ15N, a = δ15N value in equilibrium with lab diet, b =
initial δ15N value – δ15N in equilibrium with lab diet, MR = mass ratio = final
mass/initial mass, and c = curve-fitted turnover rate.
A c-value of -1 indicates turnover due only to growth (simple dilution) while c-values
less than -1 represent proportionately greater contributions of metabolic turnover to
overall isotopic change (Fry and Arnold 1982).
Values of c were determined by fitting each equation using iterative, non-linear
least squares regression. All equation curve fitting and statistical analyses were
performed using SYSTAT version 10 (© SPSS Inc. 2000). Tissue-specific turnover rates
of δ15N were compared by an overall test for coincidental regressions (Zar 1984). This Ftest compares the sum of squares error for curve-fitted individual tissue data with sum of
squares error for combined data. Curve-fitted c-values with their associated asymptotic
standard errors were statistically compared using a one-tailed t-test to a c value of -1.
Specific growth rate (SGR = 100(ln initial mass – ln final mass)/t) where t = time since
diet switch, and mass ratio (Mf/Mi) were calculated for individual fish.
Since variation in δ15N for tissues sampled during the latter portion of this
experiment was minimal, equilibrium with the lab diet was derived from fish collected
102 days after the diet switch (n=2). The mean δ15N value of tuna or water soaked tuna
was subtracted from this 102-day mean for liver or muscle tissues to estimate
discrimination. All mean values are presented ± one standard error.
Individual specific growth rates (SGR) ranged from 0.66 to 1.96 % change in
grams per day (1.28 ± 0.11 % d-1; n = 18). Starting (pre-diet switch) fish weight was 0.84
± 0.03 g (n = 23) with a final weight of 1.75 ± 0.02 g (n = 2) after 102 days (Fig. 1).
Mass ratio (Mr) varied approximately linearly with time, with a maximum mass ratio of
2.50 ± 0.09 (n = 2) at 102 days.
Metabolic turnover contributed significantly to isotopic change for both liver and
muscle (P < 0.0001; Fig. 2), and isotopic turnover rates varied significantly between liver
and muscle tissues (P < 0.0001; Table 1). The estimated c-values for the Fry-Arnold
equation were -5.85 ± 0.61 for liver and -2.33 ± 0.25 for muscle. Both c-values differed
significantly from -1 (P < 0.0001; Table 1).
Discrimination estimates were low and varied according to calculated diet δ15N
values. Liver (15.6 ± 0.0 ‰; n = 2) and muscle (14.6 ± 0.1 ‰; n = 2) had different
equilibrium values at the end of the experiment. Liver (8.8 ± 0.4; n = 5) and muscle (8.2
± 0.4; n = 5) also differed slightly at the start of the experiment. Discrimination was
estimated at 0.0 ‰ for liver and -1.0 ‰ for muscle when estimated final equilibrium
values were compared to water-soaked tuna (15.6 ± 0.2 ‰) and were higher (1.2 ‰ for
liver; 0.2 ‰ for muscle) when compared to fresh (not water-leached) tuna (14.4 ± 0.1
This is the first study to demonstrate a significant variation in isotopic turnover
between liver and muscle tissues in fish, and one of the few studies to demonstrate a
significant metabolic contribution to nitrogen isotopic turnover in fish. The mechanisms
influencing significant metabolic contribution to δ15N change in liver and muscle tissues
cannot be determined from this study, but hypotheses regarding protein turnover,
metabolic rate, and temperature are discussed in the following paragraphs.
Measurements of protein synthesis and turnover in fish indicate variation in
protein turnover rates between tissues (Jackim and LaRoche 1973; Fauconneau and Arnal
1985). If nitrogen isotope turnover and protein turnover are related, observed variation in
turnover rates between mummichog tissues would match variation observed in other fish
species. Protein turnover in rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss, (Fauconneau and
Arnal 1985) and mummichogs (Jackim and LaRoche 1973) is significantly higher in liver
than white muscle tissue.
Differences in turnover observed between liver and muscle tissues could partly
be explained by temperature effects. Mummichogs used for the current study were
maintained in warm conditions (≈18ºC) typical of water temperatures encountered in
their natural environment (Abraham 1985), which could partially explain the high
metabolic turnover in liver tissue. A significant increase in liver protein turnover
efficiency but not muscle protein was observed for rainbow trout raised at 18°C
compared to 10ºC, indicating a significant increase in protein synthesis for liver at higher
temperatures (Fauconneau and Arnal 1985). Elevated temperatures should have similar
differential tissue turnover effects in other ectothermic species (Millward 1989).
Previously observed similarity between liver and muscle isotopic turnover rates in broad
whitefish, Coregonus nasus, (Hesslein et al. 1993) and in lake trout, Salvelinus
namaycush, (Johnson et al. 2002) could have been related to cold water conditions.
Juvenile broad whitefish were maintained at 10ºC (Hesslein et al. 1993) while lake trout
were collected from cold water reservoirs (Johnson et al. 2002), and typically occupy
colder waters with ideal temperatures near 10ºC (Scarola 1987).
The high metabolic contribution to nitrogen isotopic turnover in mummichog
muscle relative to most other studied fish species is probably not related to temperature
effects. Despite a significant increase in liver protein turnover at higher temperatures,
little variation in whole body or white muscle protein turnover was observed in rainbow
trout held at 10ºC and 18ºC (Fauconneau and Arnal 1985). Differences in metabolic
turnover in whole larval red drum in field and lab conditions also could not be linked to
variation in temperature (Herzka et al. 2001).
Discrimination estimates for δ15N of mummichog liver (0.0 to 1.2 ‰) and muscle
(-1.0 to 0.2 ‰) tissues were substantially lower than the 3 ‰ enrichment initially
proposed as a general trophic level discrimination (Minagawa and Wada 1984). Recent
meta-analyses of field and lab isotope data indicate a range in δ15N discrimination from
2.3 ± 0.18 to 3.4 ± 0.13 (Vander Zanden and Rasmussen 2001; Post 2002; McCutchan Jr
et al. 2003; Vanderklift and Ponsard 2003). The absolute value of our discrimination
estimate depends on the estimate of δ15N for the tuna diet (water soaked versus fresh).
Fish may also not have fully equilibrated with the tuna diet during the time period of this
experiment, although similar δ15N values for mummichogs maintained under comparable
conditions but not included in this experiment for 104 and 174 days following a diet
switch (15.9 ± 0.2 ‰ (n = 4) for liver and 14.7 ± 0.3 ‰ (n = 4) for muscle) further
suggest complete equilibration (Logan et al. unpublished data). Despite this uncertainty
in diet δ15N, these discrimination values fall on the lower end within the range of values
included in recent meta-analyses.
Results from this study demonstrate significant differences in turnover rates
amongst tissue types and significant metabolic contributions to mummichog isotopic
turnover. These results suggest the potential of using multiple tissues to investigate fish
movement and trophic position over different time scales. However, determination of
species and tissue-specific turnover rate estimates are needed.
We thank B. Fry, S. Herzka, and S. Litvin for their comments on
the initial design of this experiment. S. Bean provided additional editing of drafts of this
manuscript. We thank C. Martínez del Rio and two anonymous reviewers for their
helpful comments on drafts of this manuscript. C. Lawrence assisted in mummichog
husbandry. E. Enos and J. Hanley coordinated our use of flowing seawater tables in the
Whitman laboratory. R. Smolowitz supervised our animal care in the laboratory and A.
Kuzirian reviewed our IACUC proposal. M. Otter performed all stable isotope analyses.
C. Neefus provided consultation on statistical analyses. This study was funded by NSF
LTER grant OCE-9726921. This experiment complies with current U.S. law, and
organisms used in the experiment were handled according to IACUC protocol.
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Mass at the time of sacrifice, Mf (g)
Time since diet switch (d)
Dilution curve
A. Liver
Fry-Arnold curve
δ15N (‰)
B. Muscle
Growth (Mf /Mi)
Table 1 Values of c for mummichog (Fundulus heteroclitus) liver and
muscle tissue. Iterative non-linear least squares regression best fits for
the Fry-Arnold model were used to generate c-values. A c-value of -1
represents isotopic change due solely to growth.
Fry-Arnold Equation
c (± SE)
Y = 15.6 – 6.8 * Mr-5.85
-5.85 ± 0.61
Y = 14.6 – 6.4 * Mr
-2.33 ± 0.25
Fig. 1 Mummichog (Fundulus heteroclitus) growth following diet switch. Growth is
represented as mass at time of sacrifice (Mf)
Fig. 2 a,b δ15N in mummichog A. liver and B.
muscle relative to growth defined as mass at time
of sacrifice (Mf) divided by initial mass (Mi).
Dilution curve (dashed line) represents δ15N
change resulting only from growth (c = -1) (see
Methods). Fry-Arnold curve (solid line)
incorporates growth and metabolic turnover and
represents best fit of data. Tuna diet δ15N =
15.6 ± 0.2 ‰ (n = 2)